Many parents rely on schools being open to allow them to go to work. So, what happens when schools unexpectedly close during term time, as will be the case for many schools in Northern Ireland on 21st February and on various other dates in GB when teachers go on strike?
With no way of knowing when there may be an end to the industrial dispute, parents (and their employers) face an uncertain time that is difficult to plan for. What are the options if an employee has childcare difficulties when schools are closed due to teachers taking industrial action? It’s not long ago that we were asking similar questions when children were being sent home from school to isolate because of covid, but there are differences between those circumstances and the current circumstances – mainly that there is more advance notice of the need to put childcare in place in the event of a closure due to strike. Also, finding alternative childcare may not be as difficult where the school is closed due to strike action as it was when the child was off school due to covid.
In this article, we give some tips for employers to consider and suggestions for how an employer might deal with a scenario where an employee has childcare difficulties because of a school closure:-
Plan in advance
Employers may consider reminding their employees that schools may be closed on certain publicised dates and ask them to proactively make early efforts to secure alternative childcare if it is needed on those dates.
Work from home
Employers may receive requests to work from home on days when schools are closed due to industrial action. This is unlikely to be a satisfactory solution where the children are young as it is very difficult to concentrate on work while looking after young children. However, there may be circumstances where an employer may permit a parent to work from home on the day of a school closure.
Employees who need time off to look after their children due to a school closure can request annual leave. Annual leave is generally granted on a “first come, first served” basis. If an employer has lots of employees seeking annual leave to care for children due to school closures, it may not be possible to grant all requests for annual leave.
Unpaid time off to care for a dependant
An employee is entitled to a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to attend to the care of a dependant where there has been unexpected disruption to the caring arrangements. This typically occurs where a child or childminder falls ill or perhaps where a school closes due to heavy snow. Arguably, there should be sufficient advance notice of school closures due to industrial action for employees not to need to avail of this right to emergency time off and an employee should instead be directed to apply for annual leave where possible.
As always, the best approach is for there to be open, early communication between the employer and employee. Early attempts should be made to reach an agreement regarding how any childcare difficulties can be overcome with the minimum of disruption to the workplace.
If you have any queries regarding this article or anything else to do with employment law, please get in touch.